(1931, Fritz Lang)
“I have no control over this evil thing inside of me”
M is one of those old films I’d vaguely heard of in the past. I knew it was the first sound movie by Metropolis director Fritz Lang, and I knew it had Peter Lorre in it, a German actor well-known for his many roles alongside Humphrey Bogart. But that was all I knew, so it’ll be interesting to see what I think of this.
M is set in an unnamed city where children are being abducted and killed, and the police are at a complete loss about what to do due to lack of clues. To combat this, they put the entire city on lockdown, conducting random searches and treating everyone as a possible suspect. The criminal underworld naturally don’t like this as it gets in the way of their “business transactions”, leading them to start an investigation of their own, creating a lynch mob in the process. And shenanigans happen.
So M is a murder mystery from the guy who created my favourite silent movie (so far). So this should be right up my alley, right? Well…yes. Yes it is. Absolutely, 100%. I’m not even exaggerating. This movie is fantastic.
First of all, as a mystery, the movie doesn’t really work that well. The audience gets introduced to the murderer pretty early on, and we already know that Peter Lorre is the one playing him. This pretty much kills off any suspense in the sense of solving the mystery. However, this is made up for in many, many ways.
Let’s discuss that police investigation by putting the city on lockdown, shall we? Bearing in mind that this is a movie made in Germany in the 1930s, so the loss of civil liberties were a pretty big topic at the time, and it shows. There’s a huge amount of tension in the lengths the police go towards finding the perpetrator, such as arresting people for all manner of things, including simply not carrying ID on them everywhere they go. It screams out “political commentary” but doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Maybe I noticed the commentary more obviously due to a scene where a man is hounded on the streets just because he’s trying to held a lost child. It’s reminiscent of a paranoia that’s been rampant in the UK following the paedophilia hysteria of the early 2000s, which probably helped draw me in.
It’s also notable how much the film shows just how similar the police and the underworld are. This is most obvious during a scene where both groups have clandestine meetings in smoky rooms, discussing what to do about the situation, with Lang cutting between both meetings as if they’re one. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of which meeting you’re watching, but really, that seems to be the whole point.
In fact, the most sympathetic character in the entire movie is the child murderer himself. While the criminal underworld are certainly trying to help, they’re doing to protect their own interests and their methods are questionable, committing burglary and attempted murder to achieve their ends. And while the police are trying to protect and serve the citizens, they’re simultaneously taking away their civil liberties so they’re not really protecting anyone. Everybody is morally ambiguous and no one is shown as entirely in the right or wrong.
Lorre’s performance is probably a big part of what makes his character so sympathetic. Yes, what he does is reprehensible, but he’s also noticeably mentally ill. Lorre shows fear not just for what the criminal underworld intends to do with him, but also fear for his own actions, and it’s fantastic.
There are some great moments of cinematography here too. When a child gets murdered in the early scenes of the movie, it’s implied through the use of a balloon floating in the breeze and an empty spot at the family dinner table, rather than explicitly shown. It was an interesting way of doing things, and I really liked how it worked. I was less impressed, however, by the shots of the damage done to the factory where they find Lorre’s character, essentially recapping everything we just watched. It felt really unnecessary.
And that’s pretty much the sole bit of criticism I can throw at the movie. M was an excellent bit of film noir that was slow but entertaining for every second.
Starring Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustav Grundgens, Ellen Widdmann, Inge Landgut, Theodor Loos & Friedrich Gnass
Written by Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen & Karl Vash
Produced by Seymour Nebenzal
Music by Edvard Grieg
Cinematography by Fritz Arno Wagner
Edited by Paul Falkenberg
Favourite Scene: I still really loved the subtle reveal of the child’s death early on in the movie, so that
Scene That Bugged Me: Stop recapping the burglary, movie!
Watch it if: You like a good film noir
Avoid it if: You can’t even find the film because of its one-letter title